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Feature Article of Saturday, 7 July 2012

Columnist: Sachs, Jeffrey

How the Daily Mail Twisted the Facts to Fight Help for the Poor

The recent article in the Daily Mail, “African village where every family gets £7,500 from the British taxpayer" (June 30) is filled with falsehoods and distortions. When it comes to the world’s poor, and the UK’s valiant efforts to help them, it pays to get matters right. The true story is inspiring: about how poor communities are lifting themselves from hunger, poverty, and disease with the generosity of partners in the UK and around the world.

The misreporting begins with the headline itself which claims that “every family gets £7,500 from the British taxpayer" in a new DFID-supported Millennium Village Project (MVP) in Northern Ghana. The headline is sheer foolishness, easily corrected with a pocket calculator.

The facts are simple. The total money from the UK taxpayer for the community is £9.5 million over five years (another £2 million is for technical support, monitoring and evaluation, etc., that doesn’t go to the community). There are around 30,000 people or around 6,000 families of five.

Outlays therefore come to less than £1.50 per villager per week. For a family of five, that’s around £318 pounds per year. And even if you add it all up for five years, that’s around £1,590, less than one quarter of the Daily Mail’s claim. The headline is nonsense, meant to inflame, not to inform.

Nor do the families “get” the money. The UK funds will be invested in the community’s schools, clinics, roads, power, safe water, and soils. These are investments to break the poverty trap. The Daily Mail would choose to deny these modest funds, under £1.50 per person week, to keep the kids alive, fed, and in school, and to enable their parents to start farm businesses to lift themselves from poverty once and for all. At all stages, DFID will carefully and independently monitor the project, as it should.

The Daily Mail reporter hurriedly visited the ongoing Millennium Village Project (MVP) in central Ghana, where around 40,000 people are making a heroic and successful campaign to fight poverty, hunger, and disease. Yet he missed the real story.

Indeed, Nana Acheampong, a community leader of Bonsaaso recently noted that, “since the Millennium Village project started in 2006, there has been a lot of improvement in our lives. At the beginning conditions in our community were poor. There was no portable water, farming was not lucrative, there were no farmer cooperatives, no bank, and no telephony connectivity. We are however witnessing great improvements in all areas of our lives.”

Through the community’s Millennium Village efforts, crop yields have increased markedly. Large numbers of farm families have joined farmer cooperatives to raise productivity and incomes in oil palm, cocoa and other crops. Chronic malnutrition has begun to decline.

“There is a new clinic in the next community which provides for all our health needs,” said Acheampong. “Our community has a learning centre with computers and internet using solar power since there is no electric grid in the community. One interesting thing is that we are not the only community benefiting but all other communities around us are having similar gains as a result of the work we’re doing here.”

The communities, backed by the MVP have built dozens of new classrooms and rehabilitated many others. Several schools now have electricity while none did at the start of the project. Many children now benefit from school meals, a program we hope to bring to all school children. Dozens of scholarships for secondary school have been awarded. Malaria is down. Childbirth is far safer. The MVP has helped to build or renovate several clinics, including maternity wards. None of this is mentioned by the Daily Mail.

Paulina Addai, another member of the community, said the improvements in health services have had a tremendous impact. “We had to worry anytime a pregnant woman was due to deliver,” she said. “But now there are clinics for delivery, there are ambulances in case the woman has to be referred to the hospital and our mothers and children are healthier.”

These are the fruits of hard work of a brave and committed community, supported by the talented local Millennium Villages team. External donors have put in a modest sum during the past five years, roughly £40 per villager per year (less than £1 per week), but this modest sum has been enough to make a fantastic difference.

It’s highly disappointing then that the Daily Mail invents the worst, rather than reports the truth. In one village called Afraso, the Daily Mail reports “a “pile of bricks” and sternly writes that the MVP has failed on its promise to build a school. The simple fact is that the local community took it upon itself to build a school in Afraso and has not yet been able to mobilize the resources to complete the project. The MVP will certainly do what it can to help.

In another place, Keniago, the Daily Mail finds “the main street littered with stacks of blue piping, piles of sand and engineering devices.” Again the paper suggests that the MVP has reneged on its promises. Once again, the Daily Mail has the situation utterly confused. The MV Project has already brought many kilometers of piped water to the communities, as well as boreholes, water towers, and pumps. Many thousands of people have access to safe water as a result. In Keniago, the local community is trying to build its own water system. The MVP has donated pipes and technical assistance for this local effort. The project is not yet finished, as the community’s means are limited. The MVP will do what it can to help the local community.

Remarkably, the Daily Mail bemoans the poverty of the people and at the same time slams the very projects working actively to help them. The story says not a word about the successful Millennium Village programs in the community, and attributes every shortfall to the Millennium Village Project. The paper is out to make trouble, not to report the truth.

The real test of the Millennium Villages Project in both central and northern Ghana will come in 2015: will the communities achieve the Millennium Development Goals on target and on time? Stay tuned. Most importantly and encouragingly, Ghana’s poor are working round the clock and round the year for their own long-term success. It is enormously gratifying that the UK and generous people and companies around the world are helping the villagers to succeed.

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